Ask your average government representative or CEO about investing in nature conservation or restoration and you might just get the answer that it costs more than it pays off. Wrong. A new analysis based on more than 300 case studies from around the world shows that the majority of the restoration projects provided net benefits.
"Our analyses showed that even under a worst-case scenario investing in restoration still breaks even or provides a financial profit in a majority of the studied ecosystem types," says centre researcher Thomas Elmqvist, one of the authors behind the new analysis which was recently published in Conservation Biology.
Most extensive study of its kind
Analysing 225 case studies from around the world with respect to benefits and 94 with respect to costs the authors showed that even under a worst-case scenario, investing in restoration still breaks even or provides a financial profit in six of the nine ecosystem types. In the best-case scenario restoration even yielded a positive benefit-to-cost ratio in all the ecosystem types considered.
Despite significant international commitments to large-scale restoration of ecosystems there has been surprisingly little information available on the benefits generated in relation to costs of such restoration efforts. The study by Elmqvist and his colleagues is an exception.
"Our study is one of the most extensive analyses undertaken to date with regard to the costs and benefits of ecological restoration across a broad range of biomes and ecosystem types"
Thomas Elmqvist, co-author
It is however important to bear in mind that the results of the study only provide partial estimates of benefits at one point in time. As such it reflects the lower limit of the welfare benefits of ecosystem restoration because both scarcity of and demand for ecosystem services is increasing and new benefits of natural ecosystems and biological diversity are being discovered all the time.
In conclusion, ecological restoration programmes can contribute to new job opportunities and livelihoods both in rural and urban areas, play a pivotal role in mitigating some of the effects of climate change and increase the ability of ecosystems to gradually adapt to climate change and other global changes.
No wonder then that ecological restoration is gaining more and more prominence. It is also increasingly cited in the objectives of international bodies such as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The latter has for instance declared that 15% of all degraded ecosystems should be "restored or put on the path toward restoration" by 2020.
Interestingly, the results also suggest that restoration pays off in both industrialized and developing countries.
"Proponents of restoration who may have resisted exploring benefit-cost ratios in the past for lack of know-how, data and even of fear that a high cost to benefit ratio would discourage investment and pro-restoration policy, may find convincing arguments in our results. Although it is important to have a healthy sceptical view on cost-benefit analyses, the positive results from the worst case scenarios are encouraging. Over time we have also become better in articulating the benefits of ecological functions and in reducing the costs of restoring these functions," Elmqvist and his colleagues conclude.
Groot, R.S. de , Blignaut, J. , Ploeg, S. van der , Aronson, J. , Elmqvist, T. , Farley, J. 2013. Benefits of investing in ecosystem restoration. Conservation Biology 27(6): 1286 - 1293.
Thomas Elmqvist is a professor in Natural Resource Management at Stockholm University. His research is focused on ecosystem services, land use change, natural disturbances and components of resilience including the role of social institutions.
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